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Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Joakim Noah with as ugly a free throw as you’ll see. And he knows it. (VIDEO)

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Joakim Noah used to be a good free throw shooter, he’s hit 70 percent for his career. But he’s shooting just 42.9 percent this season.

And no miss was uglier than the one Monday night against the Pacers.

The best part of this airball was Noah’s reaction — he knew it was bad the second he let it go.

If you want to draw parallels with the Knicks’ season, go for it.

Stephen Curry finds Kevin Durant for tomahawks slam in transition (VIDEO)

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The Warriors in transition can be beautiful basketball.

And if you don’t stop the guy with the ball from getting a straight line to the hoop, there will be highlights. In the first half Monday night, the Heat did a good job making Stephen Curry give up the ball in transition (not letting him just pull up for a three), but he found Kevin Durant, who found a lane to the basket, and… highlight tomahawk dunk.

It was a two-point game at the half between the Heat and Warriors, after what was a second quarter both teams probably want to forget.

Warriors’ Steve Kerr calls some players’ All-Star votes a “mockery”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 21:  Steve Kerr the head coach of the Golden State Warriors watches the action during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 21, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — Golden State coach Steve Kerr wishes players had taken their voting for the NBA All-Star Game more seriously, calling it a “mockery” after nearly 300 players in the league wound up on at least one ballot.

Players had a say in deciding starters for next month’s game in New Orleans, with their selections accounting for 25 percent of someone’s total score in the balloting. Fan and media votes were also part of the process of selecting starters, and NBA coaches vote this week for the reserves to be revealed on Thursday.

“I am very disappointed in the players,” Kerr said before the Warriors played the Miami Heat on Monday night. “They’ve asked for a vote and a lot of them just made a mockery of it. I don’t know what the point is.”

Nearly 100 players got only one vote from either themselves or an NBA peer in the All-Star balloting, including Mo Williams – who hasn’t played a single second this season. The NBA said a total of 324 players participated in the voting process.

Kerr was asked why he would use the word “mockery.”

“I saw the list,” Kerr said. “I saw all the guys who got votes. … There were 50 guys on there who had no business getting votes. Although a lot of people wrote in their buddies in the presidential vote as well. So maybe that’s just their own way of making a statement. I think if you’re going to give the players a vote, I think they should take it seriously.”

In past years, starters have been picked entirely by fan vote. This year, those whose All-Star hopes now hinge on the coaches’ vote include Dwyane Wade, Zaza Pachulia, Joel Embiid, two-time All-Star MVP Russell Westbrook and perennial All-Star pick Carmelo Anthony. Wade, Pachulia and Embiid would have started under the old formula.

Kerr said the change to the way starters are picked this year didn’t affect the way he made his votes for reserves. He sent his vote in Sunday.

“Didn’t alter anything,” Kerr said.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he called a staff meeting to get input on the ballot he’ll send to the league.

“How is Russell Westbrook not in the starting lineup?” Spoelstra asked. “I know how it’s important to players and especially guys that are giving their heart and soul and emotions into the game and should be rewarded for it. I do have to admit, in some years past, I would just give it to my assistants. Not anymore.”

Spoelstra said he told Heat center Hassan Whiteside, another All-Star reserve hopeful, that to be picked as an All-Star backup wouldn’t be a consolation prize but rather would be a sign of respect.

“Players, they’re not all voting. Fans, you have no idea where that’s coming from,” Spoelstra said. “But coaches … they’re paid to figure out who helps teams win and I think that’s the ultimate compliment if you get voted in by coaches. So I’m taking that responsibility a lot more seriously than I have in the past.”

Timberwolves purchase Iowa Energy D-League team

Fort Wayne Mad Ants v Santa Cruz Warriors - 2015 D-League Finals Game Two
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Timberwolves have purchased the Iowa Energy and will begin a direct affiliation with the NBA Development League team next season.

The Timberwolves announced the agreement on Monday. Owner Glen Taylor is purchasing the team, which previously had a hybrid partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Wolves will become the 18th NBA team to have a direct affiliation with a D-League team.

It’s a growing trend across the league for franchises to use the minor league teams to help develop young players, coaches and executives and help players rehab injuries.

The Timberwolves were looking for a team close to the Twin Cities to allow for easy back-and-forth travel. Energy owner Jed Kaplan will remain with the team and partner with Taylor.